Consistent improvement has Cardinals QB Kyler Murray among top NFL MVP contenders in 2021

Richard Morin
USA TODAY Sports Plus

Kyler Murray is only looking in one direction. 

Although his record is just 13-18-1, the third-year pro has shown signs of improvement. And for 2021, he has big aspirations. 

Murray is considered a contender to bring home the MVP award in 2021. If that happened, he would be the first player in Arizona Cardinals history to hoist the hardware.

The former No. 1 overall pick, who will turn 24 before the season begins, was in the MVP conversation at one point last season. But his campaign ran out of steam due to costly turnovers and two losses to end the season short of the playoffs at 8-8.

“Last year was definitely emotionally frustrating,” Murray said during Cardinals OTAs in June. “I want to win. Not going to the playoffs is weird for me. I know it’s the NFL and I haven’t been (to the playoffs) yet, but I’ve always played past the regular season in any sport. 

“It’s different, and I’m definitely not looking to get used to that.”

Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray during June minicamp at Dignity Health Training Facility.

Murray knows he will need to clean up parts of his game if the Cardinals hope to contend in the NFC West. He’ll also have a new quarterbacks coach in Cam Turner following the departure of Tom Clements.

“I think all aspects of the game,” Murray said when asked where he expects to improve. “Leadership, taking care of the ball, being better in terms of accuracy … just the whole game. There’s no one in this building or that watches the games that is a bigger critic of me than myself." 

Still, he possesses the skills that make him an odds-maker’s nightmare. As a 23-year-old, Murray passed for 3,971 yards and rushed for another 819 last season. On that trajectory, he could conceivably become the first player in NFL history to throw for 4,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a single season. The MVP votes would come pouring in if that happened.

“He’s extremely motivated,” Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury said of Murray during OTAs. “You can definitely see that he is very confident and he wants to take a huge step this year”

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As of July 21, BetMGM had Murray at +1400 odds to win the MVP award this season, tied for the fourth-best odds in the NFL. 

Now, after the Cardinals added A.J. Green to a receiving group that already includes DeAndre Hopkins, Murray might be on the precipice of history.

“I know what I need to get better at,” Murray said. “When I get out onto the field, I plan to show that I’ve grown in those areas.”

Here are some of the other MVP favorites this season:

Ryan Tannehill, QB, Titans

Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) throws a pass during practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Nashville, Tenn.

You might be surprised to see Tannehill’s name on this list, but adding star receiver Julio Jones to an offensive outfit that already includes Pro Bowl WR A.J. Brown and rushing champion Derrick Henry gives Tannehill devastating weapons.

According to Pro Football Focus, Tannehill was one of the most accurate quarterbacks on throws of 20 or more yards last season (49%), offering a glimpse of how prolific he could be with another deep threat in 2021. 

Still, Tannehill isn’t the betting favorite. Earlier this month, BetMGM had him with the 11th-best odds to take home the hardware at +2200, but the Titans quarterback could be an interesting dark horse here.

Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs

BetMGM had Mahomes as the favorite to win the award, coming in at +500 odds.

That’s pretty easy to understand given Mahomes, already a Super Bowl champion, leads the NFL in passing touchdowns since becoming the Chiefs' starter in 2018. He also led the league in passing yards per game last year.

However, Mahomes’ health will be a factor as he recovers from a turf toe injury that hampered him in the playoffs, a run that culminated in a Super Bowl loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Tom Brady, QB, Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady (12) celebrates after beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium.

Speaking of Brady, the spry veteran will look to break his own record as the oldest player to win the MVP award. The future Hall of Famer will suits up at age 44 this season. Brady became the oldest MVP in NFL history in 2017 at 40 years old.

BetMGM had him at +1600 to win the award, odds that were sixth-best in the league. And after a Super Bowl campaign in 2020, Brady will again work with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski.

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Brady is recovering from offseason knee surgery, however.

Josh Allen, QB, Bills

Like Murray, Allen is a young quarterback who seems to be getting better. In 2020, Allen broke the Bills’ franchise record for passing yards in a season and finished with a 107.2 passer rating. He also broke the team record for touchdowns in a season.

At 25, Allen will continue learning, but as far as raw talent, there are few who can match the former Wyoming standout. 

Offensive weapons such as Stefon Diggs and Emmanuel Sanders increase the odds Allen could take another step up in 2021 and claim the MVP award. BetMGM had Allen as the third-most likely MVP with +1200 odds.

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a three-time NFL MVP.

And what of Rodgers, the reigning MVP?

He still hasn’t shown up to work with the Packers yet after missing OTAs for the first time in his career. The rift between player and team has been well-documented, but seems to be coming to a conclusion with Rodgers reportedly remaining in Green Bay on a reworked contract.

2021 marks the first time in Rodgers’ career that he’s missed OTAs.

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BetMGM felt good enough about Rodgers prior to that news to give him +800 odds to be the league's best player again this season.